Friday, May 14, 2010

Shadow Science

The popular understanding of science always seems to be at least a couple of hundred years behind where science actually is at any given moment.

Today's science is far ahead of what most of us imagine, and our educational system is so lame that most of us aren't even capable of imagining it.

Most scientists would still agree that science is a way of knowing the world that is based on reason and logic. Science is a methodology grounded in doubt.

Scientists must test their ideas through experimentation, and these experiments must be replicated by other scientists. Even then, science departments at major universities  hammer at facts and theories just to see if they will break.

That kind of constant challenge is a good thing: It is meant to keep theories and information accurate, to keep inquiry democratic, and to keep researchers on their toes.

The attack on science by today's political right is disturbing on many levels, but perhaps the most disturbing thing about such attacks is that they misunderstand what science is and then offer up something even worse: bad religion.

This is often the case with New Age critiques of science too. Just because you can't understand quantuum physics that doesn't mean you are free to make it all up in your spare time and use it as evidence that your daily conversations with alien superbeings are 'real'--whatever 'real' means.

That approach is just so wrong on so many levels that it would take a separate essay to list them all.

Science is neither as bad nor as good as its press. It's a tool, period, and if you want to learn to use it effectively you must be trained in the craft. Used well, science is a really powerful tool. But it isn't always the right tool and it can't account for all phenomena.

Science always comes up in discussions of the paranormal in this way, as if it were the only portal into any examination of the unknown, as in, "Is there any scientific evidence for it?" or "Can it be proved by science?"

The right answer is often, "Who cares?"

Most paranormal phenomena lie outside the realm of science, in the shadows science wants to avoid--in traditions of magic and imagination, in methods of concealment and deception, in defunct inner disciplines of transformation, in embodied narratives like myth and folklore that see information in emotion, pattern, and dreams.

Science competed fiercely with traditions of alchemy and magic in the 17th and 18th centuries and won. But science went too far in declaring victory. Science was a sore winner.

The fact that today we hear the word 'imagination' as nearly synonymous with 'falsehood' shows how far the mark was overshot. The degradation of imagination is a distortion, and a serious one. It does real violence to the human race and is as limiting in its own way as any religious dogma.

Part of scientific overkill was grounded in political rebellion against the Church, which in that era was usually the same entity as the State in most parts of the world, and which had become crushing, unjust, and damaging to the human spirit.

But another part of the overkill was a kind of covering over of basic legitimacy in the older traditions. If you want to be the new boss, you have to make the old boss look bad--even the parts of his performance that aren't bad at all, even the parts that are valuable.

Something valuable was definitely lost in transition, and now science seems always to be nervously looking over its shoulder, always waiting for something to jump out of the shadows and shout "Boo!"

Modern Western culture is the ONLY culture in mankind's history that has no respected tradition that includes spirits, energies, big stories, magic, and other paranormal phenomena. Not only do we not have such a tradition, science feels the need to make fun of people who seek to resurrect one.

Why the defensiveness?

A recent batch of scientific experiments revealed that when people had to make decisions based on logic alone, they were soon crippled with confusion. They could not function at all. Subjects would spend hours, days, deciding what to eat for lunch.

It turns out emotion precedes logic and guides it.

Emotion contains real information, necessary information that grounds us and embeds us functionally in our surroundings. The notion of the detached, rational observer (an 18th century notion, by the way), is a fiction, a conceit that makes certain kinds of experimentation easier--and yet it is still widely touted as both possible and superior and, worst of all, the only legitimate way to relate to matter, the only sensible way to be in and of the world. Detached. Separate. Examining.

I submit that science was never big enough, good enough or true enough to be a guiding philosophical principle. Trying to make it so is like declaring your blender is God. Declare that function all you like. It's still putting an awfully heavy burden on your blender. Why not just use the thing to make smoothies, which is what it was designed to do? Why not let science just be science: an epistemological tool among many--good for some tasks, bad for others.

Deepak Chopra was on TV last night promoting his book about the Shadow of each individual human personality--about how the part of us we push away, deny, and repress actually enriches each of us and makes us who were are, makes us whole people with unique contributions--if we can only acknowledge and embrace it.

The same could be said culturally. The Shadow of science is not a garbage can. It's worth exploring in a serious, thoughtful fashion. That doesn't mean every weird idea that comes down the pike is as valid as the next. But it does mean that, as Shakespeare said in the play Hamlet,

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

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